James Farmer Jr., Freedom Ride Organizer On Non-Violent Resistance The late James Farmer Jr. was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement and an organizer of the 1961 Freedom Ride, which challenged segregation across the American South. In 1985, Farmer spoke to Terry Gross about his lengthy career fighting discrimination.
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A Freedom Ride Organizer On Nonviolent Resistance

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A Freedom Ride Organizer On Nonviolent Resistance

A Freedom Ride Organizer On Nonviolent Resistance

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Next week marks an important anniversary in the civil rights movement. Fifty years ago, on May 4, 1961, the first bus carrying an integrated group of self-proclaimed Freedom Riders left Washington, D.C. and headed towards the South.

On today's FRESH AIR, as we think about events in the South which took place 50 years ago in a different era, we also want to send our sympathies and best wishes to the thousands of people who have suffered losses from the destruction of tornadoes, which tore through the South earlier this week.

During the spring and summer of 1961, the Freedom Riders challenged segregation by riding together on buses through the Deep South. They demanded unrestricted access to segregated buses, as well as bus terminal restaurants and waiting rooms.

The Freedom Riders were pledged to non-violence and kept that pledge even when attacked and bloodied by their racist opponents. Our guest, Raymond Arsenault, is the author of a book called "The Freedom Riders."

Before we meet him, we're going to hear an excerpt of an interview Terry recorded with the late James Farmer, a co-founder of the riders and of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. In this 1985 interview, he described a turning point for the Freedom Riders, when the group he was traveling with was arrested in Mississippi.

Mr. JAMES FARMER (Co-founder, Congress of Racial Equality): There were three charges: disobeying an officer, disturbing the peace, and inciting to riot. We were arrested by Captain Ray(ph), who was the chief of police of the city of Jackson, when he ordered me to move on, and I asked where.

The young lady with me who had locked arms with me, she and I were about to go into a restaurant there in the waiting room, the white waiting room, for dinner. And other Freedom Riders followed the two of us and were similarly told to get into the paddy wagon. And we were taken to jail.

Then I sent orders by my lawyer to my CORE staff in New York to begin immediately recruiting Freedom Riders, white and black, from all over the country, sending them into Jackson to try in true Gandhian fashion to fill up the jails.

We were not going to bail out. We were going to stay in as long as we could stay in and still file an appeal, and that turned out to be 40 days and 40 nights.


Did the jails want you out?

Mr. FARMER: Yes. They quickly found out that we were not going to bail out right away. And then what they wanted to do was to make it so uncomfortable for us that we'd wish we had never come, and we'd stop others from coming.

They did not physically beat us, though they tried once, at one place, and that backfired because I got one young man bailed out and he called the FBI, and he also held a press conference. So that stopped the physical brutality.

But they did such things as putting so much salt in the food that we couldn't eat it. Many of us were chain smokers, and we were denied any cigarettes, but the guards would walk by our cells puffing on cigarettes and blowing the smoke into our cells at great length.

We were students or readers. They denied us any newspapers or any books, refused to let any come in, refused to let us have any paper or any pencils to do any writing whatsoever.

We were denied any visitors except our lawyer. This was psychological brutality.

GROSS: You were also banned from singing at one point.

Mr. FARMER: Well, they tried to stop us from singing. We sang. We sang all the freedom songs we knew, and we made up new ones. I made up one song, wrote one song. Actually, it was - I put new words to an old labor song, "Which Side Are You On."

GROSS: What were the words you wrote?

Mr. FARMER: Well, these words. I can't sing. So I won't even try to sing it. It said: Come all you freedom fighters, good news to you I'll tell, of how the good old freedom ride has come in here to dwell. Which side are you on? Which side are you on? Which side are you on? Which side are you on? They say in Hinds County, where Jackson was - Jackson, Mississippi - no neutrals have they met. You're either for the freedom ride, or you're Tom for Ross Barnett - he was the governor of Mississippi. My father was a freedom fighter, and I'm a freedom fighter's son, and I'll stick to the freedom ride till every battle's won.

Well, the jailors went wild at our singing because we were singing as loudly as we could, and our voices were wafting out over the city of Jackson. And the windows were open.

They would come in and slam our windows shut, and we would open them again and sing more and more and more. Other freedom riders, the black women in another wing, the white men in another wing, the white women in another wing, would pick up the song. And so the jailhouse was rocking with freedom song.

The jailors are running around saying: Stop that singing. Stop that singing. Stop it. And we continued singing because it was good for our morale. It was good for our morale, and we - if there were any fear left in us, that fear was dissipated by the song.

GROSS: What did they do to try to prevent you from singing after closing the window and yelling at you didn't work?

Mr. FARMER: Well, in Parchman, the state penitentiary, said if you don't stop that singing, we'll take away your mattresses. Now, that sounds like a juvenile threat, but it was an important threat because the little thin straw mattress was the only comfort we had. Everything else was cold, hard, stone and steel in those tiny little cells.

But there was this little mattress, which was comfort, which was a symbol of home, symbol of domesticity. And now they were going to take that away. We'd have nothing else.

Well, that caused some people to stop singing for a while, until one young man, who was a Bible student, reminded everybody what they were doing, that here they're trying to take your soul away, you see. It's not the mattress. It's your soul.

And then one Freedom Rider yelled: Guards, guards, guards. And the deputy came running out into the cellblock to see what was wrong, and this Freedom Rider shouted: Come get my mattress. I'll keep my soul. And then song exploded again, we began singing.

Then another time...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FARMER: I have to laugh when I think of this. One Freedom Rider was complaining that this deputy, who was in charge of the guards, always called us boy, you boys. He said: Why does he always call us boy? We're men. I think we ought to refuse to answer until he calls us men.

Another one reminded him that that was just a custom down South, and he didn't mean any derogatory by it. So this fellow said, first fellow said: I think I'll ask him. He called Deputy Tyson, said: Deputy Tyson. What? Says: Do you mean anything derogatory when you call us boy? Deputy Tyson said: I don't know nothing about no rogatory(ph). All I know is if you boys don't stop that singing, you're going to be singing in the rain.

And then somebody started singing again. They pulled in the high-pressure fire hose and washed us all down with it. We tumbled over, and everything was floating in the water in our cells.

One of the Freedom Riders then yelled: Deputy Tyson, next time you're going to do that, bring us some soap so we can take a shower.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: The late James Farmer, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1985. He died in 1999. You can hear the complete interview at our website, freshair.npr.org.

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